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Fire the Drillers, Hire the Rowers

Fire the Drillers, Hire the Rowers

An article that explains how to rip off the HR band-aid – remove the Drillers & Passengers AND hire only Rowers.

Owners and senior managers: Is your growth being held back because you cannot get the right people? Attracting top talent is currently the number one priority for many CEOs and owners.

This article will provide a step-by-step guide on my approach to ripping off the band-aid and attracting and hiring high performers.

Here are the 3 steps involved:

  1. How to identify the low performers in your business;
  2. How to become a magnet for top talent; and
  3. How to hire the right talent and avoid the wrong talent.

In my years of implementing business turnarounds and exits, actioning the People facet of the business is without question one of the most crucial and trickiest. It is one of our 2 top priorities in a project’s first 90 days 1. Yet in practice, the People side of the of the business is often ignored as it is the tough part. Often long-standing friendships get in the way. In Australia I see ‘mateship’ often getting in the way of People decisions.

I like to say to my customers: “If I do just one thing for you, it will be to ensure I sort out your People.” This means clearing out the deadwood, putting in place the right leadership culture, and recruiting candidates with the right attitude for the business.

“Get on board the right people and treat them with the respect due an owner. It’ll halve your work and multiply business value many times over.” – Jeremy de Constantin

Let’s delve into my process in more detail.

3 Steps to High Performance Teams

Step 1: Remove the Low Performers

I like to keep things simple, so although what follows may seem rudimentary, it is highly effective.

Classify your People into one of these 3 categories2:

  1. Rowers
  2. Passengers
  3. Drillers
HR management: Rower, Passenger and Driller illustration
L to R: Rower, Passenger and Driller. The aim is to have only Rowers on your Team.

Rowers are the people who keep the boat moving forward with their enthusiasm, initiative, and work ethic.

Passengers are just along for the ride. They do the bare minimum needed to stay on board.

Drillers are actively sinking the boat with their negativity and poor attitude.

It’s best to focus on one section of the business at a time. Start where you feel it is most warranted and where you will get the best return on effort. In a recent project (manufacturer) we started in the Factory. As it turned out we should have started at the Board and leadership team, but that’s a story for another day.

Low-Performer Checklist:

To help you identify the Drillers (and Passengers) use this checklist of low-performer characteristics.

  • Are negative
  • Blame others
  • Entitled
  • Don’t take initiative
  • Procrastinate
  • Resist change
  • Create drama for attention

Fire Fast:

I really focus my efforts on anyone who ticks off on 5 or more. Fire fast is the rule! Ruthlessness is the order of business here. The Drillers must go. You cannot change entrenched attitudes like negativity and feelings of entitlement easily, so my advice is don’t try. You will also need advice from a specialist employment lawyer. Once this unpleasantness is out of the way, a sense of relief always runs through the business. “Why didn’t we get rid of Bill years ago?” is a comment I have heard so many times after showing the Bills and the Jills the door.

Of course, hold on to the Passengers who might convert into Rowers. Passengers worth a shot at converting might only tick off on 1 or 2 of the checklist above.

Next, you will need to recruit more high-performing Rowers to add to the team, which we focus on in the second step.

Step 2: Become a Magnet for Top Talent

Recently I “magnetised” an Australian manufacturer by forming a future picture that would help to attract top people. It may surprise you that this future picture had no employee perks nor benefits like free lunches and on-site gyms.

You will need to think of a Powerful Purpose and at least one Audacious Goal. The Purpose and Goal must genuinely excite you and excite others.  Test it first with a someone close. Write these down and commit them to memory. Together, they will be your Vision to sell to the new hires.

In the case of the Australian manufacturer, I was very clear that our Purpose was to manufacturer brilliant designs comparable to leading German manufacturers that were flawless and would kill off the Asian competition. The Audacious Goal was to reclaim #1 market position in 24 months, a position the company had held about 10 years ago. So Vision = Purpose + Audacious Goal.

Secondly, your Company will benefit from being a Secure Base for People, especially new recruits. Secure Base Leadership3 will likely be a foreign idea for most readers. It is based on the idea that people respond strongly to things that offer them a sense of protection, caring, inspiration, and growth. Employees are invariably seeking a Secure Base in their employer.

Let me share with you 3 of the 9 key attributes you need to act out to attract high performers.4

a) Listening and Inquiring

  • Do you show a stylistic preference towards listening and enquiry rather than ‘telling’ and advocacy?
  • Do you ask powerful coaching questions to provoke new lines of thinking and draw out the best in the person?
  • Do you show genuine interest in people’s ideas?

b) Inspiring through Intrinsic Motivation

  • Do you motivate employees to tap into their self-actualisation desires by providing rich experiences rather than monetary rewards?
  • Do you determine what is important to people and use that insight to motivate them?
  • Do you stress the importance of learning, growth and development?
  • Do you focus people on achievement and fulfillment rather than financial reward?

Quality candidates almost always sign on if your philosophy in business is treating people with respect and more like owners, than cogs in a wheel. They will dare to take initiative and make mistakes. This will lead to increased productivity, better morale and improved results. Inspiration, generating confidence and providing space to learn are all closely related to each other.5

If you stick with the above, other high-performers will soon queue up to sign on. I have seen this work in healthcare where top nurses are notoriously difficult to recruit. In one well-known Sydney hospital, we quickly had a waiting list of motivated and skilled nurses keen to enlist.

Step 3: Hire the Right Talent and Avoid the Wrong Talent

You should now have a pool of highly qualified individuals. Decision time. Who will be your Rowers? If you are like most businesses, your tendency is to hire on skills. This strategy can go horribly wrong.

Mark Murphy in his book Hiring for Attitude, makes the point that while skills are important, attitude and coachability are more important. He ranks the 3 qualities to look for in a new hire as follows:

  1. Attitude
  2. Coachability
  3. Skills

And, make sure you hire the right attitude. Every business has its own unique culture, so even though a potential recruit has a good attitude, he may not have the right attitude. The right attitude is defined as being a near perfect match for the business’s unique culture. Certain attitudes, even if good attitudes, may work in one culture but not in another.

Here is a quick exercise that will help identify your unique attitudinal characteristics. It is called the 3-3-3 Exercise.6 Let’s run through it with an example business.

Tim is the CEO of a software company. He wrote down ( in a behaviourally specific way ) the attitudinal characteristics of his 3 best and 3 worst employees over the past 3 years. The table below is a summary of what Tim came up with.

The 3 Best Employees The 3 Worst Employees
  • Can distinguish between big problems that could permanently damage the company and minor problems that temporarily irritate employees (but don’t hurt the company or customers).
  • Help ownership make smarter strategic decisions by proactively providing important information (including bad news) in a candid and open-minded way.
  • Take responsibility for, and accomplish set tasks, constantly growing their own skill set.
  • Blame others (including other departments or even customers) or make excuses when things go wrong.
  • Do not collaborate, preferring to fly solo and then get all the glory, even if it means ultimately generating a sub-optimal solution.
  • Are overwhelmed by multiple demands and become paralysed, unable to accomplish anything, instead of effectively triaging and accomplishing all their required work.

Use this exercise in your own business before you make any hiring decisions. Keep this table front and centre during the interviewing process to look for the right attitudes suited to your unique culture.

Let’s recap the steps for making sure the right People are steering your business forward, and in the right direction:

  1. Remove the Low Performers
  2. Become a Magnet for Top Talent
  3. Hire the Right Talent and Avoid the Wrong Talent

It is my experience that Australian employers are generally reluctant to “rip off the band-aid” as suggested in this article. Is it the Aussie notion of mateship and a fair go that is at play here? Possibly.

Profitable growth is a function of the attitude, coachability, and skills of the People you have at all levels in your business. We know from first hand experience, that the owners who get the balance right and rip off the band-aid, will have the foundation for a prosperous business.

Are you prepared to do the same for your business?


The other priority in a turnaround situation is making sure the financials are tickety boo and that the business is not going to run out of Cash!

I would love to hear from you the percentages you come up with for each category in your business. Drop me an email on jdc@deconstantin.com.au

George Kohlrieser et. al. Care to Dare (2012).

Ibid (2012). Drop me a line if you would like to learn more about the other 6 attributes of Secure Base Leadership or complete an on-line survey to score yourself against all 9.

Ibid (2012).

Mark Murphy, Hiring for Attitude (2012), p.29.

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Article written by Jeremy de Constantin
Jeremy is a business turnaround and growth coach to CEOs and executive teams. His point of difference is his hands-on experience leading mid-large private companies. His success rate in getting a business “unstuck” is down to one simple rule – Fixing the things that most need fixing.

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